The Complete Student’s Guide to Extraordinary Coffee

AeroPressEvery morning, hundreds of half-awake students drudgingly line up at Tim Horton’s or Starbucks locations all across campus to get their caffeine fix. When you’re struggling to keep your eyes open for an 8:30 class it is easy to justify waiting in line to pay money for a cup of mediocre drip coffee. However, with a little planning you can brew your own coffee that is cheaper, tastier, and quicker than anything you’ll find on campus. Here are the top 3 reasons you should brew your own coffee as a student:

It tastes better

Don’t revoke my Canadian citizenship or anything, but Tim Horton’s coffee doesn’t taste that great.  Sure it’s fine when it’s loaded  up with sugar and cream, but try drinking it black one day and you’ll discover that it’s less than tasty, even for someone who regularly drinks their coffee black. Don’t get me wrong,  It’s a lot better than the drip coffee in your cafeteria, but it’s pretty easy to make a better tasting cup at home with a little preparation.

It is cheaper

Even after you factor in the investment costs of a French press and coffee grinder, you still come out on top over the cost of buying coffee every day. Trent over at The Simple Dollar wrote up a nice cost comparison between brewed and bought coffee, and even using highly conservative numbers, brewed coffee comes out on top. The best part is that you can spend more money on gourmet coffee grinds and still come out on top in terms of cost, only with a better cup of coffee in the end.

It doesn’t take much longer

Unless you come super early or at an awkward time, you’re likely to spend at least 10 minutes waiting in line any time during the morning. Sure, brewing your own coffee takes time too, but it takes less time, it’s predictable, and it’s time you spend in your kitchen in your pajamas, not sitting in a line feeling like cattle.

Brewing a cup with the AeroPress takes less than a minute, not including preparation and clean-up.  The whole affair should take less than 5 minutes, and you can spend a large portion of this time tending to other tasks such as making breakfast. Further, it takes a predictable amount of time, so you can build it into your morning routine. The length of the Starbucks line varies wildly day to day, often making you unnecessarily early to class or risk missing your caffeine fix if the line is unusually long.

You’ve convinced me, now what?

You’re a student, so I’m going to assume you’d rather spend $300 on beer than on a fancy Italian import espresso maker or coffee brewing setup.  Lucky for you, the law of diminishing returns applies to coffee gear as well, so you can nab yourself a great setup for anywhere between $50-100.

Step #1: Invest in a grinder

Buying your coffee beans whole and grinding them before you brew is the #1 easiest step you can take to improving your brew. It is a classic example of the 80/20 rule, requiring little effort and expense but delivering large increase in quality.

Coffee beans are highly susceptible to oxidation to begin with, going stale after X weeks, even when stored properly. However pre-ground beans go stale much more quickly due to the increased surface area, to the order of only X hours after grinding. You can buy nitrogen-flushed coffee bags and try to store them perfectly, but that will only make it marginally better. You are better off buying your beans whole and grinding before each cup.

There are three main types of coffee grinders: electric blade grinders, burr mill grinders, and hand grinders. Electric blade grinders are the cheapest, and your parents might have one lying around the house, but their major flaw is that they don’t deliver a consistent grind size. This is a problem if you are using a French press, which requires a consistent coarse grind, otherwise you’ll have some bits of coffee beans in your finished cup. The ideal grinder is an electric burr mill type, which not only lets you choose the type of grind but delivers consistent results. However these can run you from $100 up, and can take up a bit of space on the counter.

Hario SkertonThe best option for a first grinder for students is a hand mill, which deliver the same consistency and adjustability as the electric burr mill models, but they are a lot cheaper and you can put them away in your cupboard when you’re done. Personally I use the Hario Skerton Ceramic Coffee Mill, and I enjoy the hefty construction, including the all-glass jar and anti-slip rubber grip on the bottom. If you are looking for something smaller or for travelling, you can also pick up the Hario Slim Coffee Mill, which is a lightweight plastic model with a smaller capacity.   The only downside of a hand grinder is that you have to manually grind the beans by hand, which takes 30-45 seconds of vigorous handle-turning on your part. Personally I don’t mind the process, it adds a feeling of hand-made authenticity to my morning brew ritual.

Step #2: Upgrade your brewing apparatus

Ditch your drip coffee maker in favor of a French press or AeroPress. You are probably familiar with the classic french press, and the AeroPress uses a similar concept, but acts more like an oversized plunger. By pressing the coffee through a paper filter, you can use a much finer grind, closer to espresso than to the coarse grind you normally need for a french press. Using one of these devices lets your control all four variables of the coffee brewing process: dosage, coarseness of grind, water temperature, and brew time, whereas drip machines only let you control the first two.

There a ton of great resources out there for learning how to brew a cup with the AeroPress. To start out, watch How to Make a Perfect Cup of Coffee with the AeroPress to learn the basics. Then when you are comfortable, you can check out some more advanced methods such as the famous Inverted Method or how to brew iced coffee with the AeroPress. If you are looking to really learn from the best, you can check out some of the recipes from the World AeroPress Championships. Some of these recipes are very complex, and might be overkill for your morning cuppa.

Step #3: Acquire some specialty accessories to perfect your brew

Investing in a coffee grinder and some sort of press brewer will take you 90% of the distance to a perfect cup. But there are still a lot of cool coffee-related gadgets and tricks out there that you might find worthwhile. Here are a couple of my favourite.

Get a good travel mug

Contigo AutoSealYou don’t want to carry a coffee mug all the way to campus you say? No problem. Enter the Contigo AutoSeal Travel Mug, which is the pinnacle of hot beverage transport technology. These bad boys automatically seal when not in use, and are vacuum insulated to keep your coffee hot for hours. In fact, this is the only travel mug that I have found that actually seals consistently and reliably, allowing me to throw it into my backpack without worrying about it leaking all over my books. It’s insulation is so effective that my 9 AM coffee is always still comfortably warm for my 1 PM class. If anything, you may have trouble with your coffee still being too hot to drink for your first class.

Vacuum seal storage container

Airscape Coffee CanisterEven when you are grinding your beans every morning, they will still go stale eventually, which makes it difficult to buy in bulk to save money. You can help keep your beans fresh for longer some sort of airtight storage canister. The Planetary Design Airscape is a great model that allows you to squeeze out excess air, keeping your beans fresh longer.

Reusable metal AeroPress filter

If you are a regular AeroPress user, you will soon begin to notice yourself quickly expending your disposable paper filters. If you brew a cup or two every day, it makes financial (and environmental) sense to purchase a reusable metal filter disc. The two most popular brands are the S Filter, which is made of a fine mesh grid, and the Able brewing disc, which is a metal disc cut with tiny holes.

Conclusion

Brewing coffee at home is not for everyone, especially for Roll Up The Rim addicts. There is also a significant social aspect to coffee, serving as a centrepiece of business meetings and mid-day social gatherings. But for most people who have just fallen into this routine naturally, it is easy to make a better tasting cup of coffee for less money and in less time. You’re drinking the stuff anyways, might as well enjoy it.